Kennedy Cen­ter hon­orees: “Hamil­ton” com­poser Lin-Manuel Mi­randa

Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and his creative team on the song that ce­mented the mu­si­cal’s leg­end

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - PETER MARKS BY IN NEW YORK [email protected]­

‘Bit by bit, putting it to­gether,” goes the song about the act of cre­ation by Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s idol, Stephen Sond­heim. It wasn’t un­til Mi­randa was a spec­ta­tor at his own show, and no longer a per­former in it, that he grasped the real power of one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary num­bers in the mu­si­cal that he and the three other orig­i­nal mem­bers of the “Hamil­ton” brain trust painstak­ingly as­sem­bled, bit by re­mark­able bit.

“The first time I saw it, I was so over­whelmed,” Mi­randa says of “Sat­is­fied,” the song An­gel­ica Schuyler, who loves Alexan­der Hamil­ton from afar, sings at a pow­er­ful mo­ment in “Hamil­ton.” “I mean, it’s still the num­ber that ev­ery time I see it, re­gard­less of where I am in my life or which com­pany I’m see­ing in the world, I am com­pletely over­whelmed. It is so much big­ger than all of us.”

The ob­ser­va­tion is an es­pe­cially mov­ing one, com­ing from the man at the vor­tex of a team of cy­clonic tal­ents that has re­minded the world that mu­si­cal the­ater is unar­guably a great Amer­i­can art form. On a gray day in Oc­to­ber, his thoughts on “Sat­is­fied” are be­ing recorded as he sits in a con­fer­ence room of a Bronx movie stu­dio with those three other artists: Thomas Kail, Alex La­camoire and Andy Blanken­buehler. To­gether, they are be­ing rec­og­nized by the Kennedy Cen­ter as the cre­ators of “Hamil­ton,” the first work in any per­form­ing arts dis­ci­pline to be sin­gled out as an hon­oree in the awards’ 40year his­tory.

The four men, rang­ing in age from 38 (Mi­randa) to 48 (Blanken­buehler), have forged one of the most sig­nif­i­cant creative al­liances in the con­tem­po­rary world of the stage. With Mi­randa as com­poser and star, Kail as di­rec­tor, Blanken­buehler as chore­og­ra­pher and La­camoire as mu­sic di­rec­tor, they’re col­lec­tively two-for-two in build­ing Tony Award-win­ning mu­si­cals for Broad­way, the first be­ing 2008’s “In the Heights.” And the sec­ond: a mu­si­cal of such in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence that it’s play­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously in New York, London and through three Amer­i­can tour­ing com­pa­nies; has been show­ered with awards; and reached so deeply into global cul­ture that it’s sung ev­ery­where from block par­ties in Brook­lyn to dance acad­e­mies in Bei­jing.

On this af­ter­noon, an ef­fort to gather the men in one place for a con­ver­sa­tion about what this award memo­ri­al­izes — the art of col­lab­o­ra­tion — has re­sulted in a sit-down at Sil­ver­cup Stu­dios North, where they are par­tic­i­pat­ing in an­other project they all have a hand in: a lim­ited se­ries for FX about di­rec­tor-chore­og­ra­pher Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Ver­don. When it was sug­gested that the in­ter­view fo­cus on one galvanizing in­ter­lude of “Hamil­ton,” and how each played their part in mak­ing it hap­pen, the re­ac­tion was im­me­di­ate and elec­tric. It was an op­por­tu­nity for them to re­flect on the pro­found psy­chic-in­come as­pect of their group achieve­ment and the in­ef­fa­ble bond that feeds artis­tic suc­cess.

“This speaks to a sense of trust that I think is ev­i­dent, as you watch all of us kind of lean for­ward in our seats, get­ting a chance to talk about this one par­tic­u­lar thing,” Kail, 40, says. “The dif­fer­ence be­tween a show that might have an op­por­tu­nity to be its full ex­pres­sion — when ideas are al­lowed to flow and be iden­ti­fied — and when they’re squelched, be­cause it’s not your job or you shouldn’t be say­ing this or you don’t feel the com­fort of be­ing able to say it.”

“I’ve worked on other shows where you pro­pose a change be­cause the mo­ment isn’t work­ing, and all of a sud­den, you feel the grins tight­en­ing, you just see the arms lock. With this group, that has never hap­pened,” adds La­camoire, 43. “There’s al­ways been a thing about, ‘You know, this isn’t quite land­ing,’ and then we all think about, how can we make it bet­ter?”

‘Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art,” say the lyrics of that Sond­heim song, “Putting it To­gether,” from “Sun­day in the Park With Ge­orge,” that seem so ap­pro­pri­ate for the process by which this quar­tet of cre­ators merged skills and sen­si­bil­i­ties to make“Hamil­ton.” And to achieve the com­plex as­sem­blage of rhyme, mu­si­cal style, nar­ra­tive play­ful­ness, dance and emo­tional ef­fect that con­join in a num­ber like “Sat­is­fied.”

The vi­gnette-filled “Sat­is­fied,” which comes smack-dab in the mid­dle of Act 1, proves to be a won­der­ful spring­board for dis­cus­sion, be­cause it em­bod­ies so many of the mu­si­cal’s ir­re­sistible at­tributes: its rest­less, en­er­getic re­source­ful­ness; its abil­ity to paint a his­tor­i­cal mu­ral and ap­ply a mod­ern var­nish of com­men­tary at the same time; its per­spec­tive shifts, its wit, its rigor. It’s no won­der the song drew on and con­jured for Mi­randa and com­pany all man­ner of cul­tural ref­er­ences, in­clud­ing “West Side Story,” “A Cho­rus Line,” “The Ma­trix” and “Rata­touille.”

It’s a song that was the break­through in­di­ca­tor of how much story their deeply re­searched mu­si­cal, based largely on Ron Ch­er­now’s best­selling bi­og­ra­phy, could pack into a con­ven­tional two-act struc­ture. Be­cause be­fore “Sat­is­fied,” An­gel­ica Schuyler did not ex­ist in the show. “The ques­tion of whether El­iza’s sis­ter would be a char­ac­ter was up for de­bate,” Mi­randa re­calls. “I mean, she is a con­fi­dante of her sis­ter, she had th­ese letters with Hamil­ton, and it’s, ‘Do I have time to get into that?’ ”

De­vis­ing “Sat­is­fied” for An­gel­ica, a role orig­i­nated in 2015 at of­fBroad­way’s Pub­lic The­ater and on Broad­way by Re­nee Elise Golds­berry, who would win a Tony for it, proved cru­cial to de­vel­op­ing the emo­tional core of “Hamil­ton.” It took Mi­randa about a month to write it, and it sets in mo­tion the show’s tragic ele­ment, how pas­sion un­ful­filled — in this case, An­gel­ica’s for Alexan­der — even­tu­ally tears apart Hamil­ton and those around him. The song, which in­cludes in­ge­niously rhymed rap to dra­ma­tize the dizzy­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of An­gel­ica’s own in­tel­lect, be­gins as An­gel­ica’s toast to the mar­riage of Hamil­ton to her sis­ter, El­iza; An­gel­ica has in­tro­duced her to Hamil­ton dur­ing the pre­vi­ous song, El­iza’s “Help­less.”

“I liked the idea of a wed­ding toast,” Mi­randa says. “I’ve been to enough wed­ding toasts where the wrong things tum­ble out.”

“To your union,” An­gel­ica sings in the five-minute-plus num­ber’s open­ing seg­ment, “And the hope that you pro­vide/May you al­ways/ Be sat­is­fied.” What then follows is what the song iden­ti­fies as a “rewind”: go­ing back to the events of “Help­less,” but told now from An­gel­ica’s an­guished per­spec­tive, in a way that crys­tal­lizes a piv­otal facet of her char­ac­ter. “I re­mem­ber that night, I might re­gret that night for the rest of my days,” she sings, in the song’s defin­ing line.

In re­turn­ing to that mo­ment, Kail says, “we re­al­ized that there was an op­por­tu­nity for Lin to play with the time­line, and the way that we moved through time.” That con­cept would re­peat it­self at an­other cli­mac­tic mo­ment of “Hamil­ton,” in the freeze-frame ren­der­ing of the bul­let that fa­tally strikes Hamil­ton in his duel with Aaron Burr. It was not an orig­i­nal idea, ac­tu­ally: The creative team was bor­row­ing a cine­matic tech­nique, one of many they use in the show.

Kail says: “This is some­thing I talk to the ac­tors play­ing An­gel­ica a lot — about ‘Rata­touille’ ” — the 2007 an­i­mated movie about the rat that be­comes a Parisian chef.

“To­tally ‘Rata­touille’ ” Blanken­buehler in­ter­jects. “We use it as a verb and an ad­jec­tive.”

Kail ex­plains that the freez­ing of time in “Hamil­ton” has its par­al­lel in the mo­ment in the film when the food critic, voiced by the late Peter O’Toole, has an epiphany as he sa­vors a piece of food.

“When the critic takes the bite, and you go into the critic’s eye, that’s what we’re do­ing,” the di­rec­tor says. In other words, the in­stant in which the car­toon critic sam­ples the food stops time; view­ers are given a pro­tracted, imag­is­tic im­pres­sion of what is hap­pen­ing in the critic’s mind. That same stop­ping of time oc­curs in “Sat­is­fied.”

“I love that, son­i­cally, it takes us some­place we haven’t been to be­fore,” adds La­camoire, the mu­sic di­rec­tor and or­ches­tra­tor. For Blanken­buehler, the chore­og­ra­pher, “Sat­is­fied” was a feast of new pos­si­bil­ity, too: “I think the first time I heard the song was at a read­ing,” he says. “And I just re­mem­ber the right hand on the pi­ano, and the tin­kles, and I in­stantly saw women sus­pended, like on top of a cake, like on pointe, like how things ro­tate on a wed­ding cake.”

But per­haps the most com­pli­cated chore­o­graphic ele­ment of “Sat­is­fied” is what hap­pens in the in­ter­lude in which pre­re­corded voices take us into the “rewind” por­tion of the song. Be­cause the danc­ing en­sem­ble, as­sem­bled for the wed­ding, phys­i­cally rewinds, too, to the move­ment of “Help­less.”

“All of ‘Help­less’ goes coun­ter­clock­wise,” Blanken­buehler ex­plains. “So when you rewind in ‘Sat­is­fied,’ and for just a mo­ment you go clock­wise, you un­der­stand it. When they dance in ‘Help­less’ and ‘Sat­is­fied,’ the same dance move­ment matches both lyrics.”

La­camoire says: “The first time we saw what it looked like, with the lights and the turntable, our jaws lit­er­ally dropped.”

Asked how they could yield to one an­other in de­vel­op­ing a song with so many work­ing parts, Kail replies: “A tremen­dous amount of trust. The other re­search and de­vel­op­ment that hap­pens over 10 or 12 or 15 years of work­ing with some­one, is faith. One of the real ben­e­fits of talk­ing to any­body in this group is we can talk about emo­tion, and it can be trans­lated and dis­tilled into ac­tion.”

“We’ve been in sit­u­a­tions to­gether,” Blanken­buehler adds, “where we have failed, as well as suc­ceeded, and I think all of us have a good mem­ory for both of those things. So that we get in the next sit­u­a­tion, we just fall into the pat­tern of what it felt like when it went right. Or we re­mem­ber the road­blocks of when it has gone wrong. Be­cause we’ve done both to­gether.”

It feels as though th­ese guys could talk about this one song all day. But they all have other places to be. So maybe Mi­randa cap­tures the essence of col­lab­o­ra­tion best as he listens to his long­time col­leagues talk about their ap­proaches to “Sat­is­fied,” and then says with a laugh:

“Th­ese are all the things I do not see when I write a song!”


LEFT: A scene from “Hamil­ton” dur­ing its sum­mer run in Wash­ing­ton. The mu­si­cal is the first work in any per­form­ing arts dis­ci­pline to be sin­gled out by the Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors in their 40-year his­tory. RIGHT: Re­nee Elise Golds­berry per­forms “Sat­is­fied.” “It’s still the num­ber that . . . re­gard­less of where I am in my life or which com­pany I’m see­ing . . . I am com­pletely over­whelmed,” Lin-Manuel Mi­randa said.


ABOVE: The creative team be­ing hon­ored for “Hamil­ton,” which is play­ing in New York and London and in en­gage­ments by three U.S. tour­ing com­pa­nies. From left: Andy Blanken­buehler, chore­og­ra­pher; Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, writer and orig­i­nal star; Alex La­camoire, mu­si­cal di­rec­tor; and Thomas Kail, di­rec­tor.


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